The Balance of the Rose
Copyright© 2014 by R22CoolGuy
Mann spent the night holding vigil over the entire group sheltered in the lodge. The weather stayed calm, a hold over for sure of Mann's interference. The night passed quiet and uneventful and the morning dawned bright and clear.
Mann stood from the chair he had passed the night in and stretched before entering the kitchen area. The cook was already busy preparing breakfast and the smell of coffee wafted throughout the great room. Mann poured a cup and took it back into the great room, where Benito was up tending the fireplace. Mann watched Gwynith slip out of the bedroom and enter the kitchen area.
"What are your plans for today?" Benito asked. "I ask because I think the caravan should press on for Innsbruck and then on to Vienna."
"And you want to know if I am coming along," Mann replied. "I really have not thought that far ahead."
"I guess you will be leaving now that you found her," Maria stated, crossing the room from the ladies' bedroom door.
"I am not sure when Karith will be able to travel," Mann replied.
"Well, allow me to alleviate your fears, for I am ready to travel now," Karith stated, standing in the doorway. "Have you done your morning routine yet?"
"I really have not had the time lately," Mann replied. "I have been busy with other things."
"Practice makes perfect," Karith replied. "There is no time like the present. You will have to find me a sword though, I fear I have lost mine."
"No you have not," Marianne stated, coming out of the room holding a bundle. "I gathered up all of your things before we fled."
Marianne held Karith's sword out for her to take and Karith smiled and took the scabbarded weapon. She drew the sword to the exclamation of the assembled crowd.
"That is a finely wrought weapon," Benito exclaimed. "Who was the sword maker?"
"My father," Karith replied and then teared up. "Mann, he is still there, Tarn wants him to create a sword from a bar of silver star of archanite!"
"We will rescue your father, never fear," Mann stated, not yet understanding the significance of the metal. "But first, it may come as a shock, but I have someone I want to introduce you to."
Mann touched Karith on the shoulders and gently turned her around to where Gwynith was standing in the kitchen area. Mann was concerned about Karith's reaction but figured it was best to get it over with; with that being said, he was completely unprepared for her actual reaction.
"Hello, Mother," Karith simply stated. "I should say I am surprised that you are here with Mann, but everything associated with him has ceased to amaze me."
"You knew I was alive?" Gwynith asked crossing the room and standing hesitantly in front of her. "How?"
"Just recently, actually," Karith replied and reached out to take her mother's hands. "You faked your death to protect Father and me, did you not?"
"Tarn actually revealed it, whether intentionally I am not quite sure," Karith replied and pulled her in for a hug. "You feared he would kill us and enslave you. I know this because he almost succeeded with me, if not for my amazing beloved."
They spent several tear filled moments in a hug. Mann had released Karith and stood back to give them time. He knew that soon they would be heading back into the jaws of death and just wanted Mother and Daughter time to reconnect. He watched them whisper to each other and had a stray thought that perhaps Caledor could answer.
"Caledor, could I enchant a weapon?" Mann asked, touching Caledor's hilt. "Imbue it with Eldritch, similarly to how I scribed your true name?"
"Yes, My Lord, you are powerful enough to accomplish that. Your dagger was created thusly. I am not sure if you could enchant special powers into it, though but you could certainly make it stronger. Be careful, My Lord, normal metal may melt while you are trying to enchant it."
"Hmmm, I guess I will have to pass on the idea."
"My Lord, you could have the swordsmith use the bar of archanite."
"The bar of archanite?"
"Yes, My Lord," Caledor replied. "It is the metal that I was created with."
"Who are you talking to, Beloved?" Karith mentally asked, hearing him having a mental conversation with another. "Who is Caledor?"
"Caledor, will you reveal yourself to her?" Mann asked. "She can hear us through our bond link. No secrets."
Caledor opened itself up and explained to Karith who it was and everything that had happened up to the point of finding her. Having Tanith's memories made the introduction easier, since she knew of Runeswords. She thanked Caledor and Mann for taking her into their confidences, promising never to reveal the sword's amazing abilities. Mann explained that Caledor revealed when it desired and to not worry too much about it. Karith also told Mann not to worry overly much, since she knew there were several swords of excellent craftsmanship and power in her hoard on Andor.
"Mann, Mother will be coming with us when we rescue Father," Karith stated, interrupting his private conversation with his sword. "Between the three of us it should make it easier."
"Are you sure, Karith?" Gwynith asked. "The Prince is an Elder Wyrm and very powerful. Even with the three of us it will be difficult."
"Mother, you fled him once when you felt he had found you again, correct?" Karith asked and continued after her nod. "You feared that he was more than powerful enough to dominate you and break the bond you have with Father? He tried to do the same to me. He was more powerful than I, and there was even a moment when I panicked. In that moment I despaired and thought all was lost and sent a plea to my beloved. And you know what he did? He sent me love and reassurance and more importantly, filled me with his power. That power overflowed me and knocked the prince back against the wall, leaving him stunned."
"Beloved, how much power did you send me?" Karith turned toward Mann.
"I sent you what I was holding," Mann shrugged. "It is what I normally hold, what I am holding now."
"Compared to what you could access and use, how much is that?" Karith asked, trying to make her point.
"I have never really thought about it in that regard," Mann replied and thought for a moment. "I normally hold enough to initially protect myself. In the grand scheme of things, probably not very much."
"Mother, he is being modest," Karith explained and touched Mann's check affectionately. "He is to us as we are to mortals."
"Nevertheless, he will still be a formidable foe," Mann stated. "Not that it matters much, since in the end I will prevail."
"To that end, I want to practice, I want to exercise with you," Karith stated.
Mann nodded and started for the door while Karith quickly buckled on her sword and followed. Gwynith was curious and decided to follow as well. Mann led them to an area on the side of the lodge, near the barn and started stretching. Karith stepped to his left and started stretching as well. When they were finished, he began the first forms of unarmed movement, flowing from form to form with Karith in lock-step. In a flourish, Mann drew Caledor and began the armed forms of defense, offense, and counterpoint, and again Karith matched his motion and elegance. Gwynth watched in awe of the symmetry of motion. She was also surprised to find no error, or misstep from either of them.
Karith was finally in a place she belonged, she could feel his heartbeat and knew the next step and associated movement without conscious thought. They flowed from movement to movement with the fluid grace that a ballet company could only wish for.
Mann noticed that Karith was matching him step for step and decided to increase the pace to see when form degraded due to speed. It was a trick his old SwordMasters would use on their students, and specifically on him. Soon they were a whirl of motion as they danced the death dance of a SwordMaster. He finally slowed down and then went through cool down exercises before completely stopping.
"Impressive!" Gwynith declared. "Mann, that was unbelievably good. Karith, you are truly remarkable with a sword, who taught you?"
"Mann," Karith replied, not wanting to go into the whole previous memories discussion.
"Your abilities have improved over the last few weeks," Mann said by way of a complement. "I do not believe we will be in a sword fight but you never know. Do you have a good mental picture of the castle?"
"More the inside than the outside," Karith confessed. "Marianne would have a better description. Speaking of which what are we going to do with her and Alfred when we leave for the castle?"
"I have been giving it some thought," Mann declared. "We could leave them here and then return after, but it is really no good, leaving them stranded in the middle of a mountain pass. A better idea would be to travel to Innsbruck and let them stay there while we rescue your father."
"And then return for them?" Karith asked.
"We cannot take them with us but we can give them a choice on where they wish to live," Mann replied. "And set them up before we leave."
"Where are we going?" Karith asked.
"I do not know, yet," Mann replied. "I go wherever the Balance is skewed. In the interim we can go anywhere we want."
"I would like to return to my lair and collect a few things," Karith replied and started back for the lodge. "We should eat and then press on for Innsbruck."
"Your lair?" Mann and Gwynith asked at the same time.
"Yes, my lair on Andor," Karith replied matter-of-factly. "There are things there I must do."
They entered the lodge and found that the company had finished breakfast and were packing everything away in preparation of leaving. There was still food laid out and Mann, Karith, and crew sat down and ate.
Alfred and Marianne seemed nervous and Karith told them not to worry, that they were going with them. She asked the two former slaves and servants what they wanted out of life.
Alfred wanted to return to his village in the south of Britain. He had family there, or he did at one time, and he wanted to find out if they were still there. He had come to France with his employer and then further east in his capacity as a 'Gentleman's Gentleman'. He had entered the Prince's service several years ago as an assistant, and later been promoted to a steward in his keep.
Marianne said that she had no family; her village, in the north of France, was sacked by the Bohemian Empire. She was taken as a slave as a young girl. She first worked in the kitchen and moved up to chambermaid, and finally personal assistant to the prince's guests, housed in the guest wing. She had no firm plans or life's ambitions, save living free and doing so far from the Carpathian Mountains.
Mann promised the both of them that if it was within his power he would make sure that their desires were met. He explained that he, Karith, and Gwynith were heading toward the castle to rescue Karith's father. Before that he intended to see the caravan to Innsbruck where, if Marianne and Alfred desired, they would stay and wait for Mann to return. After the business at the castle was finished they would return to Innsbruck and then deal with Marianne's and Alfred's wishes.
Benito entered the lodge and announced that everything was ready for their departure. Maria, Esmeralda, Gwynith, Karith and Marianne would squeeze into the traveling carriage while Alfred would ride with the cook. Bento called the company to mount and signaled the scouts forward before ordering the caravan forward. Black lightning bolts struck the two scouts, blowing them into the cliff walls to either side, dead.
"Did you honestly believe you could take from me without repercussions?"
The pass ahead was blocked by a huge bronze dragon!
"Benito! Have your men seek shelter," Mann screamed out, drawing Caledor and galloping forward. "Protect your charges and stay clear of the Wyrm! Karith, Gwynith, stay out of the fight unless I call for you. Everyone, find cover and stay down!"
"So, you know what I am," the bronze Wyrm declared. "Then you also know that your time on this earth is short!"
Thorn quickly stopped, dropping its head down while Mann slid over the horse's head and landed in front of it, facing Tarn. Thorn moved to its left to get out of its rider's way. Mann stepped right and started drawing Eldritch from the surrounding area, complementing what he was already holding, and created a golden shield in his left hand.
"Blah, blah, blah," Mann replied and then attacked with golden balls of Eldritch, fired from the fist holding Caledor. "Talk, talk, talk."
Tarn deflected the attack and countered with lightning bolts, which Mann blocked with his shield. Mann caused a chasm to open up under Tarn who flapped his wings and leaped back out of the yawning maw of the trap. Tarn spewed acid over the area where Mann was standing. Mann strengthened and expanded his shield as the acid rained down all around him. Mann's shield absorbed the breath based weapon, and Mann countered with golden flames erupting all around the Wyrm.
Tarn was engulfed in golden flames of Eldritch as they magically burned his body. He screamed in pain and anger and began to beat his wings rising out of the inferno when Mann hit him with golden Eldritch beams of energy. Mann continued his attack as Tarn gained altitude and countered with beams of black Eldritch emanating from his eyes.
Beams of blackest night hit Mann from both sides and he staggered back from the twin surprise attacks. Dropping to one knee he moved his shield to block the attack from his left. He then dropped his frontal assault and pushed Eldritch to his right to divert the attack from that flank.
"Karith, Gwynith, deal with the sorcerers but stay clear of the prince and I," he commanded, looking back.
Karith came up his left side and attacked the Moravian Sorcerer who appeared by the cliff face while Gwynith did the same on his right.
"I see you have revived the princess and also found her mother," Tarn taunted. "Excellent, perhaps I will dominate the both of them after I crush you."
"Blah, blah, blah," Mann replied, standing up again and attacking.
Eldritch flashed all along the face of the cliffs that framed the high mountain pass. Mann battled Tarn, while Karith and Gwynith took care of the two sorcerers.
Benito had dispersed his troops in a protective arc, protecting the royal carriage when his rear guard came riding up fast. Bohemian shock troops were marching up the pass from their rear!
The company of guardsmen quickly shifted its arc to face the threat from the rear, while Benito moved Maria's carriage further back, away from the advancing troops but closer to the raging battle in front of them. The advancing troops crashed into the guardsmen's line, initially pushing them back.
"Hold your lines!" Benito screamed to his men. "No one gets past, protect the royals!"
The guardsmen held the line despite the ferocity of the troops' attack. Benito and Alphonse moved up and down the line, encouraging the soldiers and filling in where necessary.
Mann checked that Karith and Gwynith were all right before re-engaging Tarn, who had used the lull to shift from Wyrm to humanoid form. He also had moved to the near side of the chasm, Mann's side.
"Now, feel the power of an Elder Wyrm!" Tarn exclaimed and flung his arms up and forward.
An insidious and darkly evil shadow began to spread out from Tarn's body arching high into the air and along the cliff face on either side of the pass, blocking out the sun. The shadow was accompanied by a low baleful moan as it crept forward toward Mann and the rest of his group. Mann drew power and let it flow outward combating the advance of the shadow.
Everything the shadow touched withered and died, though, being in the middle of an early snow, there was not much vegetation to kill. The rocks even crumbled into dust and slid down the exposed face of the cliffs.
"Be wary of the shadow!" Mann called out to the others and then had a thought. "Shadow?"
"You think to use that which is mine!?" Mann cried out and then held his hand up high, letting go of Caledor, which hovered in mid-air, and displayed the ring on his finger. "Depart this realm and return to which you came!"
The shadow flinched as the ring on Mann's hand began to glow. The shadow shrank back and retreated away from Mann, fading until nothing remained except the devastation the shadow had caused.
The royal guardsmen's line was pressed back but held, not allowing any of the attacking troops to overrun it. Benito saw the attackers regroup for another charge and called out encouragements to his men. The fighting was fierce and no quarter was given by either side, the dead lay where they had fallen. The Bohemian troops crashed into the guardsmen's line yet again and again were pushed back. The attackers' numbers were dwindling but so were the guardsmen's. Benito figured they could withstand only one or two more charges before the inevitable would happen, a break in their line. He was encouraging his men when he heard Mann scream out, 'Coward', and turned back just as the dragon vanished in a puff of black smoke.
Karith was considerably stronger than the sorcerer, but he had the experience which put the opponents on a more even footing. They battled back and forth, each deflecting the attack of the other until a chance stumble from the sorcerer gave Karith the upper hand. She had just hit him with multiple balls of energy, driving him backward, as he deflected them to the side, when he stumbled on loose rock. It was just the opening that Karith needed, so she hit him with silver lightning which he was unable to deflect. The lightning discharged throughout his body, frying internal organs and killing him. Karith turned to aid her mother when she saw Gwynith finish with her opponent.
Gwynith's battle was quick and decisive; she was more experienced then her opponent, and stronger as well, and soon overpowered him. The sorcerer had a shield up, which was deflecting her attacks while he concentrated on his own attacks. Gwynith quickly realized the sorcerer's error and fed his shield power, overloading it until it erupted with a violent and chaotic discharge of energy. The discharge ripped his organs apart, killing him instantly. She smiled a grim little smile and turned to help her daughter. She saw that her assistance was unnecessary since Karith was just finishing up her own opponent.
Mann had just banished the shadow, and reclaimed Caledor when the prince vanished in a puff of black smoke.
"Coward!" Mann called after the retreating figure and scanned the area for other adversaries.
"Help the guardsmen, I will protect our rear!" He called out to Karith and Gwynith.
The two nodded and turned back toward where the guard had made their stand. They swept through the shock troops like a hot knife through warm butter, leaving none alive. Mann had joined them after they were done but still keeping a wary eye on the road in front of them.
"Benito, change of plans," Mann declared, drawing power and then pointing to Gwynith and Karith. "We three are following the prince back to his castle. You take the caravan and make for Innsbruck straight away. Take Alfred and Marianne with you. We will be along shortly."
"Marianne, would you picture the road to the castle in your mind, please? As much detail as you can, please?"
Mann plucked the information from Marianne and gave it to Caledor. After ensuring that the caravan was ready to travel he turned to his mate and her mother.
"Ready?" he asked.
After receiving nods from both of them, he directed Caledor to shift them to the coordinates that Marianne had provided. Thorn stepped forward just as Caledor began the shift and was caught up in the teleportation spell.
Benito shook his head as he watched the group fade from view. He turned and gave the order to move forward and sent out scouts ahead of them. Alexander rode at his side as the caravan finished the downward leg of the journey over the pass and onto Innsbruck.
The caravan crossed the bridge over the river Inn and entered Innsbruck in the late afternoon. They were passed through the city gates and made straight for the palace of the mayor. They had sent word ahead of their arrival and the mayoral palace was turned out to receive the royal cousins. Rooms had been prepared for the royal cousins. Sergeant Alphonse and the guard had been quartered in the nearby barracks, while Captain Benito was quartered with the royals. Rooms had also been prepared for Marianne and Alfred as guests of the Arch-Duchess.
Mann's party appeared on the road just south of Tarn's castle. He was surprised to find an addition to his party, but decided that his horse was more than a horse and might just be useful.
"Be wary, he may have wards," Mann cautioned and then reached for the reins of his horse. "If we come across any I will deal with them."
The other two nodded and even Thorn acknowledged Mann with a whinny and nod of its head. Mann led Thorn while the two women flanked him as they slowly approached the castle by way of the road. Mann could see that the parapets were manned and the portcullis was down. Entering the castle might prove difficult. Mann paused for a moment as a memory played out in his head...
Mann paused at the door; he could feel a low level Eldritch emanating from the door and walls of the home. He correctly deduced that the building was warded. Holding out his hand to stop Karith/Tanith, he placed his other hand palm out, just off the surface of the building and began to interweave his power with the warding. After successfully commingling the Eldritch, he rewrote the wards, making them his and trapping the occupants within the house. He smiled at the thought that he could have removed the wards with no power discharge, as well. Take that, Red Rose.
"Take what, My Lord?" Red Rose asked.
"Nothing," Mann replied, silently chuckling to himself.
Mann smiled, remembering the memory, and then leaned over and kissed Karith. He was happy but surprised to survive another memory with no associated pain. She smiled back and hurried forward to match her mother's position on his other flank. Mann allowed them to lead as he pondered the last memory.
"Mann, be wary yourself," Gwynith replied, looking back at Mann and shaking her head. "Wyrms are stronger when they are in their lair. This is his lair, I can smell it."
"I wondered what that smell was," Karith replied. "It is rather rank."
"That is because your heart is already taken," Gwynith replied. "The smell would be completely different if you were not bonded."
Mann nodded understanding to Gwynith's comment, when she suddenly stopped, swinging her arm out causing Karith to stop as well. He slowly approached, and when he was parallel to their positions stopped beside Karith. Placing his hands out palms flat he felt for the wards. Keeping his hands just off the invisible barrier he started weaving his power into the warding spell. He used the information gleaned from the memory to convert the wards to his own.
"Caral," he whispered, speaking the rune of warding and then added more power.
Karith saw a brief golden flicker of light shimmer from the invisible dome surrounding the castle and smiled.
"What?" Gwynith whispered, looking between Karith and Mann. "That should have tripped the wards. What did he just do?"
"He used the rune of warding," Karith replied.
"I know runelore, daughter," Gwynith replied hotly. "What I do not understand is why the wards were not set off by his actions."
"He subverted the wards to his own and then re-strengthened them with the rune of warding," Karith replied. "I told you about his powers and abilities."
"Come, the wards are ours," Mann announced, moving toward the portcullis. "It is time to storm the castle."
He stopped in front of the portcullis and pushed his hands forward releasing part of the power he was holding. The masonry at the sides and top of the portcullis crumbled into sand and blew away, while the gate crumpled inward and then flew off into the courtyard with a large clatter. Mann led them through the gateway and into the main courtyard where a large contingent of Bohemian soldiers were waiting, some having been struck by fragments of the gate. The three castle stormers fanned out; Mann taking the middle, and the women positioning themselves on either side. The three advanced on the soldiers' positions, who had started forward as well. The bulk of the defenders advanced on Mann's position, giving him little time to worry about the women.
Caledor literally sang through the air as it hewed through the onrushing soldiers. Mann carved a swath through the ranks as he made his way toward the keep's steps. He hazarded a quick glance to his left and right to check on the women's progress.
Karith was using her sword to cut a path through the defenders as she tried to maintain her positioning at Mann's left. Gwynith was also wielding a sword but she was also blasting soldiers with power as well. The trio had carved a path through the defenders and presently stood before the apron steps of the keep, from which they were blown back by a blast of blackest energy and found themselves sprawled on the ground.
"You dare to attack me here!" Tarn challenged from the top of the steps. "In my lair?"
Mann picked himself up and dusted himself off, shaking his head as he sheathed Caledor.
"I have had just about enough of you," he declared, smiling his feral grin.
Mann began to draw power when a stabbing pain in his head drove him to his knees...
Mann saw Lord Tnuk begin drawing power from the surrounding rock. 'Saw' was perhaps the wrong word, Mann could feel the power flowing toward the goblin and knew he was preparing to attack, so he preempted the attack with one of his own.